The third chapter in the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy skimps on the War, but you'll hardly notice amid all of the top-notch performances.
The super-intelligent ape Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) and his band live in the rainy forests of Northern California, doing their best to evade the attacks of human soldiers, who are growing more desperate as humanity is decimated by the Simian Flu. As the winter deepens and the attacks grow more vicious, Caesar must choose to flee the human army, or to stand and fight for the future of all apekind.
At the head of the opposition is the truly unsettling Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson. He's a leader who isn't afraid to go into the thick of battle with his men, and he's got a fiery conviction driving his hate for the apes.
Watching War for the Planet of the Apes reminded me that we've been witnessing the rise of a new art form. Acting via motion capture reaches a true pinnacle in this film. In the first of Andy Serkis' Planet of the Apes films, I spent a fair amount of time marveling over the impressive special effects and character movements. I didn't spend any time thinking of the motion capture in War for the Planet of the Apes, and this is the true triumph of the film. The ape characters are so real that you'll never even question it, and you'll never leave that magical state of suspended disbelief the film weaves. Each and every motion-captured nuance to play across the actors faces are telegraphed into their on-screen characters with pure authenticity. War for the Planet of the Apes is Andy Serkis' masterpiece, and he deserve every accolade the media levels at him.
Serkis isn't the only motion-capture actor who delivers a knock-out performance. Karin Konoval plays Maurice, a familiar orangutan companion to Caesar, and she communicates the deep intelligence and contemplative attitude the character has developed. At the same time, she also communicates the physical weight and presence of such a large ape. I couldn't help but feel a devastating emotional investment in these characters due to these performances. A new character to grace the screen is Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, who provides a good deal of the comedic relief and still manages to evoke moments of empathy.
On the other side of this fight we find Woody Harrelson playing the Colonel admirably, and the character is chilling. He's got personal motivation to hate Caesar and all of his kind, and he's recruited troops that share his fanaticism. The scenes where Harrelson and Serkis square off sizzle with tension. And to me, that is the key factor in this film – it will run you through the entire emotional gamut. It evokes terror, tenderness, empathy, vengeance, joy – and it manages to do it all painting on a canvas of actors playing apes squaring off against those playing men.
If I have any gripe about War for the Planet of the Apes is the lack of actual war. Sure, there is plenty of action in the film, but if you've been anticipating ranks of ape soldiers clashing with battalions of human soldiers, all while the brilliant general Caesar squares off against an equally clever counterpart, you're going to have to keep waiting. This is an easy sin to forgive when compared to the grand scale of the ambitious film, and there are plenty of fireworks to keep you entertained.
I give War for the Planet of the Apes 4 out of 5 stars.